Computer Productivity
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Using Shortcut Keys

Now that we know what shortcut keys (and keyboard combinations) are, we can start talking about how to use them.


Built-In Shortcut Keys

Shortcut keys are useful everywhere. Almost every program I've ever seen has some support for shortcut keys. They exist in Internet Explorer, Firefox, AOL Instant Messenger, Notepad, Microsoft Office, Outlook, your anti-virus program, and even in Windows itself. In fact, you've probably seen them but didn't realize what they were!

For example, click on your browser's Edit menu at the top of the browser window to see something similar to Figure 1 for Internet Explorer and Figure 2 for Firefox.

Figure 1 - Internet Explorer

Figure 2 - Firefox

A shortcut key listed next to a menu action item is the shortcut key associated with the action. That means that if you ever forget what the shortcut key for Select All is, you can just click the Edit menu to find that it's Ctrl+A.

Another way to find shortcut keys is by looking for underlined letters in menus. In Figure 2, above, you can see that the Edit menu has its E underlined. This means you can press Alt+E to access that menu. After you've accessed that menu, you can press A to access the Select All command. Note that you don't need to press Alt again when choosing a menu item.

That is, you can access the Select All command either by pressing Ctrl+A or Alt+E, A. While it's clear that Ctrl+A is shorter in this case, sometimes menu commands don't have quick keyboard shortcuts, and you need to default to navigating the menus using Alt.

Hint For Using Shortcut Keys

In the Introduction to Keyboard Productivity article, we defined a shortcut key as a set of keys pressed at the same time. If you've ever tried doing something at exactly the same time, you know that it can be very difficult (especially when you're talking about a sensitive computer).

Here's a little secret: you don't need to press them at the same time! Instead, press and hold the modifier key first (for however long you want), and then hit the action key afterwards. For example, to execute the Ctrl+S shortcut key, you can simply press and hold the Ctrl key and then hit the S key and release both.

Learning Shortcut Keys

There are a lot of shortcut keys out there. For a simple application like Notepad, there may only be 5 to 10, but if you start looking at a Microsoft Office application, you're looking at hundreds.

So how can you memorize all of those? First: not all of them are useful enough to commit to memory (how often do you really convert text to a table in Microsoft Word?).

Second: start slow. See what your 3 most common tasks are in a program and figure out what the keyboard shortcuts for those actions are and memorize them. After a while, it will come extremely naturally. The next article shows you some of the most common keyboard shortcuts across different programs. Start with some of those.

Note: Windows Only

Remember: throughout these articles, we assume that you're using some version of Windows. If you are using another operating system, these general principles still apply, but the keys you use may be different.